The Sunday Magazine

'An accident and a miracle': Remembering Woodstock, 50 years later

Woodstock was more than a music festival; it was a massive celebration of counterculture, free love, and peace. York University's rock 'n' roll professor, Rob Bowman, takes us back to those heady days of the 1960s with some of the tunes that installed the event on the musical map.
Part of the crowd at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, 1969. (Getty Images/Ralph Ackerman)

Originally published on June 21, 2019.

The Woodstock music festival was one of the most pivotal events of the last century — even though very little about it went according to plan.

The event was conceived as a "music and art fair" for about 100,000 to 150,000 people, but about half a million people showed up.

"What happened was kind of an accident and a miracle at the same time," Rob Bowman, associate professor of music at York University in Toronto, told The Sunday Edition's host, Michael Enright.

"It was the second largest city at that point in New York, for three days, with no police force, not enough food, not enough water, not enough sanitation facilities, and only two people died — one from an overdose and one got accidentally run over while he was sleeping in a sleeping bag.

"So neither from violence. It's amazing."

Peace, not war

Although he was just 13 years old at the time and didn't attend Woodstock, which took place 50 years ago this August, Bowman has an encyclopedic knowledge of how the event evolved, the performers who made music history and what happened over the course of the weekend away from the stage.

He said the organizers — a small group of young men — were shocked to learn as many as 100,000 people were already on the grounds before they were even able to collect tickets.

"It was a free festival before it started and the two money guys immediately took a different attitude then," Bowman said. "It was about, 'How do we deal with an unmitigated disaster?'"

Financially, it was a fiasco for the organizers, who took years to pay off their debts. But in every other sense it was a success. The people at Woodstock — both those who attended the festival and those who lived in the area — created a sense of community, taking care of each other, sharing food and living up to the festival's credo of love and peace, not war.

A music fan at Woodstock festival in his car covered in anti-war slogans for love and peace. People who attended the festival created a sense of community, living up to the event's credo. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

Some of the performers also spread the anti-war message through their music. The most notable example was the final act of the weekend, Jimi Hendrix. His violent rendition of the American anthem echoed the sounds of war.

"You know, there's a term you often find in classical music studies, where people talk about a tone poem. That's exactly what this is. He's representing, sonically, exactly what those words are about," said Bowman.

"This was the first time that anybody had seriously played with the national anthem which, of course, is sacrosanct in the United States. It's like the flag."

Bowman said Woodstock's impact on the music business was huge.

Mexican-born American musician Carlos Santana, right, and American bassist David Brown perform with the other members of Santana at the Woodstock festival in Bethel, N.Y., on Aug. 16, 1969. (Tucker Ransom/Getty Images)

"Big money looks at this and goes, 'Wow! Half a million people will come, even though some of them are parking 25 miles away … and they will put up with unbelievable deprivation. They will go through hell for this music,'" said Bowman.

"So this is potentially big money."

It sparked a new chapter in the music business, giving birth to the world of serious, professional promoters like Canadian Michael Cohl, who was dubbed the Howard Hughes of rock 'n' roll by Fortune magazine and has managed groups like the Rolling Stones, U2 and Pink Floyd.

Woodstock changed the culture of the music business, says Bowman, "and I'm not sure for the best."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.


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